I want to tell a story about Haggai. It’s pretty easy to feel sorry for Haggai, one of the minorest of the minor prophets. Kind of pitiful, really, when you set it next to the majesty of Isaiah, or the sheer bone-crushing length of Jeremiah. Haggai operates as the twelfth man on the J.V. canonical squad, just kind of sitting at the end of the bench, hoping one day to get into the game—you know, a blow-out or something.
On the other hand, Haggai does provide an interesting snapshot of where things stood for the people of Judah after returning from exile in Babylon—interesting in the sense that there might be something this story of resettlement for our times.
Remember what had happened to God’s children? The cream of the crop of the land of Judah had been force-marched across the fertile crescent almost seventy years before, finding themselves twiddling their thumbs in refugee camps over in Babylon.
Then came along Cyrus, king of Persia, who not only defeated Babylon and freed the exiles to return home, he also gave them government contracts to rebuild the temple that had been bull-dozed when the Babylonians first put on war paint.
As you may recall, dear reader, the weary exiles returned home to Jerusalem, only to find that things had not gone particularly well for the old hometown during their extended absence. The fields and vineyards were overgrown, the animals scattered and wild. Some of the wells had gone dry. Jerusalem looked like the set of some sort of apocalyptic Mad Max movie, all dirty and ruined.
So the returning exiles had their work cut out for them. They began the arduous process of clearing the land and scraping the dust off of three quarters of a century of neglect.
Eventually, things evened out a little for those who’d returned. They got the big clock at city hall running again; trash pick-up had resumed a limited, once-weekly collection on Tuesdays; they were talking about starting classes back up at the elementary school in the fall; and one guy was even organizing a t-ball league.
Things weren’t normal by any stretch, but they were looking up a little.
Then somebody brought up the temple. When were they going to get started rebuilding the temple?
“Well, that’s a pretty big job. We shouldn’t rush into a job like that.”
“Yeah, but we already cashed the check.”
“True. But we don’t even have enough food yet to feed our kids. Things are pretty tight right now. Why don’t we hold off building the Lord’s house until we’re a little better financially situated?”
After some wrangling over whether it was appropriate to start rebuilding the temple before they had even gotten everyone’s cable hooked back up, the people of Judah decided—with considerable prompting from Haggai—that they’d put it off long enough; they’d better get cracking on that temple. So they started the work.
However, problems arose. Some of the folks who’d been around to see the old temple in all its splendor, started telling the folks who were breaking a sweat rebuilding the new temple that this current enterprise was but a pale imitation, a mere shadow of the old temple.
Solomon’s temple, the one the Babylonians knocked down, was spectacular with all that gold and sparkly stuff, all that imported Indiana limestone and Italian marble. But this one, the new one, wasn’t nearly as impressive. This time around they had to settle for plywood and tar paper, getting all the fixtures on clearance from Home Depot, buying a few pieces at a time as the money came in.
The new temple didn’t appear very inspiring to those who’d witnessed the former glory of God’s house. And they weren’t timid about shuffling out to the worksite and regaling those who were busy sawing and hammering with tales of the beauty with which God had once blessed them.
And the folks who were new on the scene, who’d never witnessed the beauty of the old temple started to grumble among themselves: “What do these people expect? Look at the material we’ve got to work with. It’s not our fault we only have plywood. We’re working our tails off, and look at the thanks we get. We didn’t get ourselves in this mess. This is what we inherited.”
The danger facing them as they rebuild is twofold: First, obviously, the danger for the folks who’d been around to see the former glory was that they would persist in the notion that nothing could live up to their memories, that no matter what God was doing in the present, it could never measure up to what they remembered. God’s best work was already in the past—which is a tough place for God’s best work to be.
The second danger, though, wasn’t quite so obvious. The second danger was that those who hadn’t seen the glory of the old temple, those who were now trying to live faithfully in less than optimum circumstances would begin to despair, thinking that they weren’t doing something important because they were working with scrap lumber instead of the high end stuff. And this danger was perhaps even more perilous, in that those whom God had called to take courage and work might begin to believe that God was unable to use the new unpromising circumstances for as great an end as the former glory. Such thinking was corrosive just to the extent that it took all the focus off of God and God’s ability to secure the future and put it squarely on the backs of those who were feeling defeated by their situation.
Despair is the ultimate sin for God’s people—because it says that circumstances are such that even God can’t make a difference.
Children of God are children of hope, who believe that if God is sovereign, God’s desires will ultimately come to fruition. We can question it and argue with it, but we had best never give up on it.
It would be easy to chuck it all and say, “You know what, we’re tired. We’ve been dealt a crappy hand. If God really loved us, God wouldn’t have let things get so run down and out of control. As it stands now, though, the best we can hope for is an occasional moral victory and the knowledge that a long, long time ago we were a part of something great.”
But here’s the thing: God’s best work is never a distant and ungraspable memory. God’s vision is planted in hope—not in some gauzy idealism, and certainly not in a gilded scrapbook of past glories.
God’s people trust that there’s a place for them in the future not because of their ability to secure it, but because God has promised to be there with them.
Sometimes old structures get torn down. Sometimes they wear out. Sometimes they just don’t serve the same purpose they used to serve and need to be replaced.
What the structure looks like is largely irrelevant, since what is being worked out is God’s vision of the future and not a monument to our own glorious past.